The Store With a Colourful Past of Different Names and Locations
Pictured Right: 1866 advertisement shows Petrolia’s location as being in Canada West (C.W.) because the name Ontario didn’t begin until Confederation in 1867.
In every family there are stories that get passed down through generations and sometimes the versions differ. Occasionally, pieces get forgotten or muddled as time marches on and the past becomes more distant.
The story of this store was much like that until historian Edward Phelps plunged into a mountain of records in the early 1960s. He emerged with the discovery that the store actually began as John H. Fairbank’s General Store in 1865….not 1874, 1872 or 1867 as was sometimes believed.
When was 1865? It was the year Abraham Lincoln was shot and one year before Petrolia became an official village. It was also before Confederation. The land here was not known as Ontario or even Canada. The first ad for the store locates it in “Canada West”. A fairly young Queen Victoria had only been on the throne for four years and Alice in Wonderland was published.
The name changed to Fairbank and Bennett in 1869 with the arrival of a partner. This was short-lived but with a new partnership in 1874 the store entered a golden age. This is when the oil rush was in full frenzy and the multi-talented Major Benjamin Stoddard Van Tuyl became a partner. (pronounced VanTile)
Not only has the store had three names, it has had various locations too. It started at the foot of Petrolia’s east end hill, where all the village had congregated, and in 1872 added a building at the corner of Station Street and Petrolia Line. Five years later, it bought out east end general store of Henry Smallman and enlarged its west end store. For a time it ran both locations before settling into the 1872 building with various outbuildings. A fire in 1889 caused considerable damage, leading to new warehouses behind the store the next year.
In 1895, the old 1872 building was replaced with a beautiful, spacious Victorian building. It featured glass and hardwood display cases, an upstairs showroom and a staircase considered to be one of the best in southwestern Ontario. For more than five decades beginning in 1883, it operated a satellite store in Oil Springs and another in Bothwell for a shorter time.
This golden age could not last and Petrolia found itself in a new era of declining oil. A number of other financial shocks rocked the Fairbank family even before the stock market crash of 1929. One of the major blows to their finances was the bankruptcy of the Petrolia Wagon Works. It was a big operation and for 20 years it was building hundreds of carriages and wagons. J.H. Fairbank had co-signed a substantial loan to the Petrolia Wagon Works and when it failed, the Fairbanks paid more than $210,000 to the Bank of Toronto. In 1920, this was a staggering amount.
The beautiful building was sold in 1929 to become Stonehouse Brother’s showroom for cars. Undaunted, the Van Tuyl and Fairbank Hardware continued in the remodeled warehouses where it stands today. The roof was peeled off three warehouse buildings and one gigantic roof covered them all to consolidate them into one building.
Pictured Right: This 1895 building replaced one that the store had on the same spot. Earlier, the store was at the foot of Petrolia’s east end hill. The 1895 building was sold in 1929 and the store moved into its warehouse buildings behind it. The store has been there ever since.